This Week in Web Videos: ‘Jana & Shasta’

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The comedic timing allowed by mockumentaries is so addictive because it’s so natural. When the form is strong it, maybe more than any other comedy style, seems truly real. If you’re into squirm humor, as so many are now, consuming this kind of thing becomes the comedy ideal. Unfortunately, the low-fi style that make mockumentaries so appealing to our voyeuristic sides is also what makes a lot of mocks suck. In the hands of the untrained, they’re bar lowering. “No lines? No problem. Let’s just wing it!” becomes the motto, and the sheer novelty of carrying around a camera becomes the joke, rather than…actual jokes. The true art of nailing the mockumentary, then, seems to be making something that’s really produced (from outlining to editing) look like it’s not. To do that, you need a team of pros like Tynan DeLong, Ana Fabrega, Ryan Bennett, Vasia Ivanov, and Max Rosen. Then, and only then, do you get Jana & Shasta, and not something we all scroll past on our Facebook feeds. I talked to DeLong about how the web series came to be.

How’d you get your start in comedy?

I started out as an improviser in Portland, and then slowly moved into doing stand up. Then I moved out to New York 3 years ago and have done a mix of stand up, sketch, and character-based stuff.

Where did the idea for Jana & Shasta come from?

This specific series idea came from a short video that I did called, “MOMA Presents: Emerging Artist Damon Dodge” and it was just a guy who made memes. Within that video, I had written some characters called Jana and Shasta who were big meme fans and talked about how these memes had changed their lives. They just had a couple lines in the script I had written, but Ryan and Ana are just brilliant improvisers, so we ended up shooting up a bunch of stuff with them and I ended up going home and chopping it up into a little three minute video. After I put that together I was like, “I’d love to make an entire series with these guys” because they were so funny. And that was the genesis of the series.

What were the challenges in shooting? What was the budget, if you don’t mind my asking?

The budget is whatever I can afford for lunch. There really is no budget, we just go out there and shoot. We had some challenges with the first one where we went out and shot but we didn’t really have a game plan, we were just kind of, like, “Lets just do a mockumentary about these two people from Florida who are lost in New York.” So we just filmed them walking around, but, when I got back to my apartment and started cutting it up, it wasn’t great so we had to do pick- ups about 2 months later. You can tell the weather changes drastically, there’s snow on the ground and then there isn’t. We made sure there was more of a story there, a through line that connects all of the episodes.

Did you not script the first episode? 

We didn’t script it. Well, really, none of the episodes are scripted. The dialogue is improvised, but, after what happened with the first episode, we realized that we should come into filming with more of a game plan. So, basically, what I do is: I create an outline of where the story is going to go and then they improvise all of the dialogue within the outline.

Retroscripting.

Yeah. A lot of the things they’ll improvise within the shoot can kind of dictate where things are going to head in other episodes.

What’s next for the project?

I have about three other episodes that we want to put out and that will pretty much wrap up this particular project. There’s a particular story that we want to tell and then, once that is told, that will be it. The ending will be open-ended so if we do want to create more we have that option. Or, if someone picks it up and wants us to make more. Once that finishes, we’ll move onto the next project, hopefully with the same team. We’ve got a really brilliant cinematographer named Max Rosen who just makes everything look great and Ana and Ryan are fantastic.

What have the challenges been in getting the word out about the series?

I’m trying to get the word out to as many people as possible. It’s also a Channel 101 show so we’ve been moving along in that.

How many months have you gone in a row?

We have four out night now, about to put out a 5th one. That’s another way we’ve been getting it out there. Other than Facebook posts it’s hard to get it out there. I’m no PR wiz.

It becomes part of your portfolio, too, though. That’s maybe the most valuable thing.

That’s how I look at it. I think the body of work is really good, so I’m happy to show it off. After I finished editing that first episode, I really felt we had identified the tone we wanted for the series, which was that intersection of funny, sweet and sad. That’s what we’re constantly trying to shoot for, something that makes you go ‘ahhh’ just as much as it makes you laugh, and I think we accomplished a lot of that.

What else are you watching online right now?

I like this guy called Keaton Monger and he does this series called Meat, with Mary Houlihan and Sam Taggart and I really like that. He also does these weird one-off videos. He’s got a really unique and fun style that I really love.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to make short form content like you did, but maybe haven’t jumped into doing it yet?

I would say you’ve just got to really push to make something. I think the easiest way to do that is to take on the roll of producer, director, and writer and grab a friend with a camera and go out and shoot it with friends. I feel like the logistics are often the hardest thing to deal with. So, if you can take care of the logistics side, you have a really good shot at producing content that will be seen.

Do you think that your retroscripting model with really good improv talent is a good way for people to break in, specifically for people who might not be as adept at writing right away. Or, is it that you need to be skilled in all aspects of filmmaking before you can really control a retroscripting scenario like that.

I think the key is: you have to cast people who are really great improvisers if you want to do that. Our thing is done in a kind of mockumentary style, which makes it easier for improvisers. The key is to get people who play off each other really well and who can improvise really well.

How much do you find yourself directing them as they’re improvising? Are you sticking to the outline that you’ve written, or is it a more hands off approach because you don’t have a script?

I’d say it’s mostly hands off. They don’t require a whole lot of direction. Sometimes I’ll jump in and say “Take it down a few notches” or “Let’s try that again.” Sometimes they’ll say something in the shoot and then we’ll play with that a little bit more, but I’m not really directing them on how to say things. Mainly I’m just saying “This is the situation, here’s what we want to accomplish in the scene, and here are the beats.” Other than that, I just kind of sit back and say “Go.” And they’re able to nail it because they’re both really good.

Here are your three reasons to watch.

  1. Performances
  2. Form
  3. Depth

Jana & Shasta, Episode #1

Hilarious, heartfelt, trained, Ana Fabrega and Ryan Bennett are professionally adept at appearing effortlessly human. I think that’s called “acting.”

Jana & Shasta, Episode #2

Mockumentaries are overdone, yes, but they’re not dead. Jana & Shasta is proof of that.

Jana & Shasta, Episode #3

DeLong sought a series that’s as warm as it is funny. He’s got it.

Luke is a writer/director for CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.

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